The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann
I'm a huge fan of classic and contemporary tales of adventure, but I don't normally read much non-fiction. However, David Grann's The Lost City of Z sounded too irresistible to ignore. My instincts were right; it ranks among the best thrillers I've read. What a story!
Actually, it's two stories. The first is the life story of Victorian explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett. A member of the Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett was an explorer in the days when much of the globe was truly unknown. He came from a family of modest means, and began his career in the British military stationed in Ceylon. But he achieved worldwide acclaim as an explorer of the Amazonian jungles and river ways.
Grann's book is most concerned with Fawcett's last fateful expedition, but throughout the first couple hundred pages, he recounts Fawcett's entire career and it's enthralling. It's hard to imagine the bravery it took to strike out into the absolute unknown--with little or no communication with civilization--sometimes for years at a time. Fawcett and his companions routinely faced starvation, bloodthirsty indigenous tribes, horrific insect infestations, lethal tropical diseases, deadly white-water rapids, poisonous snakes, anacondas, piranha, and other terrifying creatures. If, for instance, you're wondering what's so horrific about insects, then you haven't been treated to a graphic description of what it's like when a living human is infested with maggots beneath their skin.
Fawcett and his men (always men) faced death constantly, and it seems that he must have lost hundreds of men in the course of his career. Perhaps not hundreds. Fawcett, unlike many of his contemporaries believed in keeping expeditions small. He was far more successful than most. The chapters that detail Fawcett's interactions with the native populations of the Amazon are among the most fascinating. Fawcett followed his own instincts which often were in direct opposition of conventional wisdom. Time after time he succeeded where others failed, and where the difference between success and failure was the difference between life and death.
Here's the other thing about Percy Fawcett: I think he was the Forrest Gump of his time. His story is touched on directly or indirectly by a truly staggering number of historic figures including Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Pickford, Ian Fleming, Winston Churchill, H. Rider Haggard, TE Lawrence, and even Indiana Jones!
As fascinating as every aspect of Fawcett's story is, the real hook is the enduring mystery of Fawcett's last expedition. Over the course of his long career, Fawcett had developed a hypothesis that there was once a great civilization in the depths of the Amazon. An El Dorado-like city that he simply called "Z." This is what he single-mindedly sought at the end of his career. In 1925, accompanied by his son and a friend, Fawcett entered the jungle determined to locate the lost city of Z--and was never heard from again.
He didn't go quietly. Readers around the world waited with bated breath to learn his fate. The story was routinely resurrected for decades. In the eighty-some years since, hundreds have entered the jungle hot on his trail. Many have never returned. Author David Grann is the most recent in a long line of would-be explorers obsessed with this mystery.
And it is Grann's tale that is the second story being told. He's an unlikely adventurer--a not particularly athletic, middle-aged staff writer for The New Yorker. But Grann does get caught up in the course of researching the book. So much so that he leaves his comfortable urban life, his wife, and his infant son to enter the Brazilian jungle. Like so many others, he seeks to find out what truly happened to Fawcett, and/or if there really was a Z. We follow Grann's progress interspersed between the chapters about Fawcett. One of the most shocking aspects of Grann's expedition is just how much the Amazon has changed since Fawcett's day. Grann doesn't dwell overly on the ecological ramifications, but the juxtaposition is disturbing.
Time and time again I had to restrain myself from turning to the back of the book to see how it ends. I was as caught up in the outcome as I have been with any novel in recent memory. Success was so unlikely; I just couldn't imagine how Grann's quest would end. And I'm certainly not going to tell you. Go read this book! Run! Now!
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